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4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
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on 12 August 2017
Fascinating to read the back story of this delightful poet's life. A Pagliacci character - the sadness of the clown.
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on 20 July 2017
The best book on Betjeman you will read. Comprehensive and beautifully written.
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on 18 February 2016
Did Penelope start the Hay-on-Wye Book Festival then? Or someone she knew did?
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 April 2012
It was particularly interesting coming to the Betjeman biography having just completed Philip Larkin's "Letters to Monica". Not only were they the two most popular and accessible poets of their era, they also became close friends, Betjeman placing his London flat at the disposal of Larkin and Monica - a love nest on neutral ground. However, while for the greater part of his life, Larkin lived in modest circumstances and followed a professional career, Betjeman inhabited a very different world. If his roots were in trade, his background was nonetheless wealthy and through his natural gregariousness and desire to be liked, not to mention his social aspirations, he was soon in the midst of a Bohemian, social and intellectual elite centred around London and Oxford. At times the litany of famous names is overwhelming and clearly Betjeman fed on his increasing fame in a way redolent of Oscar Wilde, the link reinforced via Lord Alfred Douglas.

A. N. Wilson shows evidence of painstaking research and clearly feels a deep affinity with his subject. On the whole the poetry receives short shrift, even given that it doesn't lend itself to detailed analysis in the way that say, Plath's does. Many might quarrel too with his list of Betjeman's best poems; there seem to me notable omissions, "Greenaway" for example. It is in many ways an extraordinary life and Wilson cleverly allows it to appear to speak for itself, without obtrusive comment. There are some wonderful anecdotes. I particularly like the one involving John Osborne and the church visit and light is thrown on so many notables from Auden to Waugh and Osbert Lancaster, Hugh Gaitskell to Anthony Blunt and Princess Margaret, along with a host of Oxford academics, politicians, broadcasters and those further on the edge of society + the omnipresent Archie. I approached the book with modest expectations but found myself utterly beguiled. Strongly recommended.
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on 20 February 2009
I feel this fine book works well in two differing respects; as an easily-read biography and as a companion to and a commentary upon Betjeman's earlier life as chronicled in "Summoned By Bells". A N Wilson's account is an intelligently, sympathetically and often wittily written addition to the Betjeman literature.

There is much "Betjemania" that the author might have included to produce an unwieldy tome but in my view Mr Wilson has edited this well; I have no quibble with the exclusion, for example, of the radio and television material. Betjeman was very "audio/visual" and without his voice or picture, the scripts lose much of their essential appeal. It is sometimes difficult to gauge how serious JB was with much of his self-deprecation but he did describe himself as "poet and hack", suggesting that he recognised that the quality of his prose was rather less than that of his verse. If nothing else, this exclusion has spared us Betjeman's irritatingly interminable references to "ilex trees" to be found in every front garden, churchyard and municipal park visited in his radio travels. This is not to suggest that his prose undertakings were without merit - quite the contrary, although they were of varying quality - but some culling of his considerable output is necessary to condense things to this convenient degree. For those seeking the minutiae, there is available another biography of different authorship.

Mr Wilson has drawn a character tortured by seemingly irreconcilable contradictions and doubts - manifested most obviously in his religious allegiances ranging from Baptist to, I suspect, crypto-Papist; the "love triangle" as well as the other aspects of this multi-faceted but in some respects, weak character. These are well covered to provide a comprehensive and eminently readable book about a man who, regardless of the social changes wrought by two world wars and the cultural ravages of the 'sixties, remained steadfastly Edwardian - how different from his contemporary, Roy Campbell. Betjeman's innate melancholia would have become unbounded had he foreseen the steep decline of the Church of England in public life, further removing the present England from the country into which he was born and for which he had such a profound affection. Thankfully, his witness to this and other more recent damage to the social fabric has been spared.

Surely, this really excellent volume devoted to probably the best English poet born in the 20th century - certainly the most popular although perhaps not the best English poet writing in that century - has to be an essential inclusion in any Betjeman collection. However, I should have liked to have learned a little more of his later years and how he came to view the death which haunted him in life.

The publisher is to be commended - the production is first class and the Arts and Crafts end-papers a nice touch; one surely to appeal to JB's shade.
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on 28 October 2012
A.N. Wilson is a figure who provokes extreme reactions. His critics complain about the shoddy scholarship, the factual unreliability, the tendency to underplay his reliance on existing published work. He does not have much patience for the grinding and often dull business of documenting sources, checking facts, chasing everything back to the archives.

His defenders enjoy the splendid prose, the sense of fun, the eye for the revealing detail and the outrageous generalisations.

Both sides have a point. Certainly, no historian should rely on any of his facts without independent confirmation. His unreliability has been exposed too often. But then again, surely there is a place for books whose primary purpose is to entertain rather than inform?

Considered as entertainments, Wilson's biographies are a runaway success. No doubt in an ideal world, one would want scholarly rigour and fun, but if I had to choose I'd probably go for fun. His books on C.S. Lewis and Iris Murdoch are also excellent.

Betjeman emerges in Wilson's portrait as distinctly less teddy bearish than the popular image. He and his wife appear to have treated their son Paul with real contempt, regularly referring to the boy as "It" in his presence. As Dave Pelzer has pointed out, this mode of address is generally not indicative of great parenting skills.

I listened to the audio recording of the Betjeman biography made for BBC Audiobooks by Bill Wallis. He reads the book well, although (I'm not the first to say this) he gives Betjeman's wife Penelope a weird rustic accent which cannot be remotely similar to what she actually sounded like.
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on 9 November 2006
AN Wilson succeeds where Bevis Hillier failed by producing a compact, balanced, but still affectionate portrait of Britain's favourite post war poet. Wilson is very good on the marital threesome, sympathetic to both Penelope and Elizabeth. He also deals well with Betjeman's guilt, religious angst and fear of death. Happily the book does not dwell on Betj's TV and radio work, which was always a distraction, but focuses instead, properly in my view, on his poetry and his life as a poet. You may disagree with Wilson's choice of Betjeman's 30 best poems, but he succeeds in catapulting the reader back to old laureate's work, which is surely a mark of a great biography. Add to that AN Wilson splendid prose, little asides and occasional barbs and you have a marvellous, absorbing read in prospect. Anyone even remotely interested in Betjeman should have this on their shelves.
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on 28 June 2011
A hefty tome, well written and highly informative.
I'd say this is a MUST for those who still adore this chap's writings, his verse, and his personality.
When John Betjeman took his leave of this world we lost a great friend. Love him and miss him greatly.
Read and enjoy - it's a treasure.
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on 25 June 2012
I have downloaded the Kindle version to read later this year when on holiday. I have already read the paperback version and can see why the product was a Sunday Times bestseller. The man and his life is a paradox. The book was easy to read and is the perfect book to read at the end of the day. Not too difficult to take in and leaving one wanting more the next evening. It opened up a new horizon for me. I have been buying the same type books for years based on my lifetime interest and this was a great change. You know what they say about a change .. it is as good as a rest .. and so it has been. I have purchased other Betjeman books for further reading. This has opened other horizons - R.S Thomas and Phillip Larkin. So, if you are interested in Paradoxes and are looking for a change then I don't think that you will be disappointed.

Derrick Matthews, South Wales, United Kingdom.
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on 28 June 2017
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